Washington Post

Amazon unveils its smartphone. But who will buy it?

[Commentary] Forget point-and-shoot. This is point-and-shop. Amazon.com announced that it's officially getting into the smartphone market, releasing the Fire Phone -- a clear play to get more users for its $99 per year Amazon Prime membership.

The phone, which will be offered exclusively through AT&T, has a button on the side that will immediately recognize products that users scan, listen to or watch, and then send them directly to Amazon.com to buy it.

“Fire Phone puts everything you love about Amazon in the palm of your hand," Amazon chief executive Jeffrey Bezos said in a company press release.

But there's one big problem for Amazon: It's not a great time to get into the smartphone market right now, particularly in the United States where the interest in new smartphones is flat. Nearly everyone who might want a smartphone in this country probably has one, and once customers get into a certain smartphone maker's orbit, they tend to stay there.

There's a reason that Apple and Samsung command nearly 50 percent of the world's smartphone market between them -- and nearly all of the profits -- leaving all other companies to pick at the scraps. "It's a nasty business," said Carl Howe, an analyst for the Yankee Group. "At best they'll break even, and you need a lot of sales of other stuff at single-digit margins."

How the NSA may be using games to encourage digital snooping

German magazine Der Spiegel posted a new cache of documents related to National Security Agency surveillance activities within Germany.

Among the trove is a report that sheds new light on how the US government may be using games to motivate analysts using XKeyscore, a tool for searching through online data that the agency collects that was revealed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

XKeyscore allows analysts to “search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals” around the world according to a Guardian story published in the summer of 2014.

A document published by Der Spiegel describes an XKeyscore training at the NSA's European Cryptologic Center, revealing that analysts may also be rewarded for their exploration within the system with something called "Skilz points."

Amazon unveils the Fire Phone

Amazon.com stepped into the smartphone ring, unveiling the Fire Phone, a 4.7 inch device with 3D capabilities, a 13 megapixel camera and free photo storage. Users can control the phone by tilting it, adding a three-dimensional element to its screen.

They can also navigate through menus or maps just by moving the phone from side to side. The Fire Phone even employs eye-tracking technology, so that the image on the screen changes as the users moves his or her head.

The phone is Amazon's bet that it can take on Apple and Samsung, while drawing more customers into its Prime subscription service universe. It plugs directly into Amazon's Prime Video, Prime Music and cloud storage services. It is also closely integrated with the company's Kindle reading apps and Audible audiobooks services.

Amazon said the phone, which will be available exclusively through AT&T, will start at $199.99 with a 2-year contract for a 32 GB model. A 64 GB model costs $299.99. Without a contract, the phone will cost $649.99. Pre-orders for the phone begin soon, and the phones will be available starting July 25.

AT&T claims ‘strong’ net neutrality would actually ruin the Internet. That’s a big leap.

[Commentary] Advocates of an open Internet have for weeks been urging the Federal Communications Commission to re-label broadband as a utility -- a move toward "strong" network neutrality that would give the FCC much greater authority to ban controversial fast lanes on the Internet.

Reclassification, as the proposal is called, would allow the FCC to apply the same set of strict rules to ISPs that it currently uses to govern telephone companies. (Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have just introduced legislation to ban fast lanes outright.)

Broadband providers have long opposed the idea of greater regulation, but now they're stepping up their rhetoric against it, arguing that reclassification won't do what net neutrality advocates are hoping for -- and might even threaten Internet companies such as Google and Netflix. In a nutshell, they say, if the FCC can regulate how the Internet gets delivered to you and me, what parts of the Internet can't the FCC regulate?

AT&T is among the most vocal critics of reclassification. Company executive Jim Cicconi argued that reclassifying Internet providers -- placing them under Title II of the Communications Act instead of the more lenient Title I -- wouldn't do anything to prevent the rise of Internet fast lanes, because embedded in Title II is a loophole that lets ISPs manipulate some traffic so long as it's not "unjust" or "unreasonable."

But the bigger problem, AT&T says, is that Title II would create all kinds of burdensome new requirements on content companies -- the Googles and Netflixes of the world. For example, said Cicconi, Internet applications might be newly forced to pay into a "universal service fund" that the FCC keeps to connect poor and rural areas to phone service.

Cicconi is asking you to make a number of logical leaps. But it's not clear that you should.

The ACLU’s latest lawsuit on warrantless cellphone tracking has hit a dead end

Earlier in June, the American Civil Liberties Union sued a local police department over the warrantless use of cellphone tracking devices, demanding that officials in Sarasota (FL), hand over court documents concerning the practice. The suit has now been thrown out.

State Circuit Court Judge Charles Williams found that he didn't have the jurisdiction to hear the case. That's because even though the case concerns a local police department, it was working on behalf of the US Marshals Service at the time that it deployed the stingray.

Stingrays are used to collect information on nearby cellphones by setting up a fake cell tower; when wireless phones try to connect with the stingray, those contacts get logged by law enforcement. The ACLU claims this is a violation of privacy.

The group said it tried to get Sarasota police to produce the application it filed to a judge for permission to use the stingray, as well as the judge's order. But then, the ACLU said, the US Marshals whisked the documents away to a federal facility, beyond the reach of Florida's public records law. Now the ACLU must either file a federal FOIA request to the US Marshals or continue fighting the court case.

Michael Barfield, the vice president of the ACLU of Florida, said privacy advocates have a chance if they can prove to the court that the records in question were state public records, not federal records. A written agreement between the US Marshals and another local police department on the use of stingrays seems to agree with that interpretation, he said.

Democrats unveil legislation forcing the FCC to ban Internet fast lanes

Democratic lawmakers will unveil a piece of bicameral legislation that would force the Federal Communications Commission to ban fast lanes on the Internet.

The proposal, put forward by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep Doris Matsui (D-CA), requires the FCC to use whatever authority it sees fit to make sure that Internet providers don't speed up certain types of content (like Netflix videos) at the expense of others (like e-mail). It wouldn't give the commission new powers, but the bill -- known as the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act -- would give the FCC crucial political cover to prohibit what consumer advocates say would harm startup companies and Internet services by requiring them to pay extra fees to ISPs.

"Americans are speaking loud and clear," said Sen Leahy, who is holding a hearing on net neutrality in Vermont this summer. "They want an Internet that is a platform for free expression and innovation, where the best ideas and services can reach consumers based on merit rather than based on a financial relationship with a broadband provider."

Sen Leahy and Rep Matsui's proposed ban on fast lanes would apply only to the connections between consumers and their ISPs -- the part of the Internet governed by the FCC's proposed net neutrality rules. The FCC's current proposal tacitly allows for the creation of a tiered Internet for content companies, though the commission has asked the public whether it should ban the practice as "commercially unreasonable."

"A free and open Internet is essential for consumers," said Rep Matsui. "Our country cannot afford ‘pay-for-play’ schemes that divide our Internet into tiers based on who has the deepest pockets."

Google and Apple want to be your doctor, and that’s a good thing

Health care has always been a sector ripe for disruption, and now with Google and Apple launching new initiatives for digital health, we’re getting a glimpse of how it might actually happen.

Wearable tech is turning out to be the back door into the health care sector, mostly through data collected from wearable sensors that enable us to monitor our bodies in real time. If done right, both Google Fit and Apple’s HealthKit could eventually help to bring down the high costs of health care.

All those wearable sensors could one day be transmitting so much data that it’s almost a no-brainer that it will help physicians make better decisions about our conditions and ailments. Instead of stopping by the doctor’s office once a year for a check-up, or only once something’s gone wrong, you will now be checking up on your body weekly, daily, maybe even hourly. And that means that you’d have early warning of emerging problems and be able to take proactive measures in advance. Google and Apple -- as two of the tech sector’s most prominent consumer-facing brands -- can do a lot to change the way we think of health care.

15 questions for Tim Wu, the net neutrality scholar who’s running for NY lieutenant governor

A Q&A with Tim Wu, law professor at Columbia University, who is running for New York lieutenant governor.

On running for office, Wu said: “I believe in open democracy as much as I believe in an open Internet."

Regarding mergers in the media industry, Wu stressed the importance of state cooperation with federal regulators: “The state can block a merger. They can't block two companies merging in Texas, but Comcast wants to buy Time Warner Cable, which happens to have substantial business operations in New York. It is a New York State merger.”

Apple opens applications for $100 million program to improve tech in schools

Schools around the country should start watching their mailboxes. Apple chief executive Tim Cook is starting to send out letters soliciting applications for its portion of a larger White House initiative to improve connectivity and technology in schools.

Apple, which has the most products in use by students in US schools, began sending the letters to various school districts inviting superintendents to apply for its portion of the ConnectED program -- the White House initiative aimed at getting 95 percent of American students on high-speed broadband networks by 2019.

Apple’s portion of the program is in providing iPads, MacBooks, software and technical training to schools with a high percentage of students in lunch assistance programs. The company’s $100 million investment in the program was announced during President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address. Several other firms, including Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon are also participating.

Iraq tries to censor social media, but its success is limited

The Iraqi government moved to block access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in a bid to disrupt the social media tools deployed by insurgents as they have swept through the country in a bold drive toward Baghdad.

But the initiative ran into a hard reality of warfare in the 21st century: Losing physical ground means losing control of cyberspace as well. Companies that monitor Internet traffic reported significant declines in access to social media services in Baghdad and the immediate vicinity as providers complied with censorship orders from the Ministry of Communication.

Internet monitoring services detected several hours of outages in Iraq. In Iraq, overall Internet traffic was running at about one-third of its usual levels, according to Akamai, a network that delivers Internet content from servers across much of the world.

In addition to affecting Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the outages also curbed access to WhatsApp and Viber, both of which provide instant messages through cellphones, said Collin Anderson, a researcher affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, who tested access within Iraq to thousands of top Web sites. “Anything that’s a social media site . . . that’s what they’re going after,” Anderson said.